Orioles rewarded Jacobs on the field, on the books


Eli S. Jacobs did what came naturally, what he'd done so many times during the go-go 1980s when he'd been busy buying companies that built everything from computer parts to chil- dren's toys.

He saw a good deal, and he grabbed it.

The business was the Orioles -- Baltimore's year-round obsession and chief source of civic pride. Owning a baseball team appealed to Mr. Jacobs, who grew up outside Boston rooting for the Red Sox. But as always with the hard-charging financier, the real lure seemed to be the investment.

Mr. Jacobs paid $70 million for the Orioles, then the second-highest price ever paid for a baseball franchise, when he bought it from the family of the late Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in December 1988. When the team's next owners are selected tomorrow in a bankruptcy court in New York, the price almost certainly will exceed $150 million.

In baseball and business, the numbers count. And during the nearly five years Mr. Jacobs has owned them, the Orioles have been nothing short of impressive. Last year, the Orioles racked up a record operating profit of about $28 million, the highest in the major leagues, according to for- mer Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent.

The team hasn't done badly in the standings either. Although the Orioles failed to win a title under Mr. Jacobs, they managed more victories than losses in two of the first four years he owned the club, and they appear headed for a finish near the top of the American League East this season.

"If you look back, we've been in three pennant races, broken attendance records in four out of five years," says Orioles President Larry Lucchino. "We helped to build the best and most talked-about ballpark in America, and I think we have established ourselves as a solidly prosperous franchise. That's only part of the record, but a part Eli Jacobs can be proud of."

"He leaves a good legacy in the sense he ran the club very well," says Mr. Vincent, a friend of the Orioles owner. "He probably ran it very much as a businessman. It operated within fiscal limits."

Mr. Jacobs clearly benefited from good timing. He bought the team when the franchise had descended to its lowest point -- a 21-game losing streak -- and presided over a transformation on and off the field that was begun by his predecessor.

The centerpiece of the team's renewal is the Camden Yards stadium, an architectural showpiece with cash-generating amenities such as plush skyboxes and gourmet restaurants, which was largely responsible for quadrupling the team's operating profit last year. Fans love the park and have turned out in record numbers.

Mr. Jacobs, 55, brought a far different style to the owner's box from Mr. Williams'. The Washington lawyer was a passionate fan who exulted in the team's winning years and agonized over its failures. His feelings about the team's play were easy to gauge; he showed them by shouting obscenities from the owner's box. He was so driven to win that he went on impulsive shopping sprees for free agents, signing three during one particularly expensive off-season.

Mr. Jacobs, though he clearly appreciated baseball, seemed to reserve most of his passion for the business of the Orioles. He studied the team's books closely, pored over stadium seating charts and immersed himself in the planning of Camden Yards.

Arriving in Baltimore, Mr. Jacobs was a mysterious, wealthy New York investor who pledged to do well by Orioles fans. He said his ownership would be a "partnership among all of us" and that he wasn't getting into baseball expecting to get out with quick profit. "I hope one day my grandchildren own my businesses," Mr. Jacobs said then. But as his financial empire unraveled, creditors clamored for him to sell the Orioles, his primary asset.

Nearly five years later, Mr. Jacobs leaves this town with a reputation for building a thriving business at Camden Yards. His success gained him the admiration of some but drew the scorn of fans who complained bitterly about three ticket-price increases in five years and groused about trades the Orioles never made.

Mr. Jacobs remains a remote, reclusive figure whose behind-the-scenes role in running the Orioles often left him invisible to Baltimoreans. He never seemed comfortable with the celebrity of owning a baseball team. He almost never attended Orioles news conferences to announce major developments, and delegated the job of team spokesman almost totally to Mr. Lucchino.

Asked to describe his tenure as owner for this article, he declined to speak to a reporter. But a spokesman for Mr. Jacobs said that "he enjoyed watching the team win" and that the owner's chief accomplishment with the team was "his role in shaping and designing the new Orioles ballpark."

Mr. Jacobs was the fourth Orioles owner but the first to run the team with a Midas touch. The original Orioles owners were a syndicate of local businessmen, including lawyers Clarence Miles and Zanvyl Krieger, who bought the lowly St. Louis Browns and moved them to Baltimore in 1954. The group paid $2.475 million, less than the Orioles now earn from their local radio contract alone.

The first owners fielded an awful club that finished at the bottom of the standings and played mostly to empty seats at Memorial Stadium. In 1959, the team lost nearly $54,000. In 1963, team officials slashed the budget and managed a $99,262 profit.

Jerold C. Hoffberger, a colorful brewery president, bought a controlling interest in the Orioles in 1965 and quickly produced a formidable team. The Orioles won their first world championship the next season and remained an elite franchise, racking up three more World Series appearances over the next 13 years.

Mr. Hoffberger wasn't immune to criticism, and he was faulted by some players for paying paltry salaries. But he was an ardent follower of the team and watched many games from his seats beside the Orioles dugout, where many fans stopped to complain or praise his decisions.

Despite the winning seasons, Mr. Hoffberger's Orioles failed to make much money. After years of trying to find local investors to buy him out, Mr. Hoffberger sold the team in 1979 to Mr. Williams for $12 million.

Under the Washington lawyer, the team reinvented itself as a regional franchise able to attract fans from Pennsylvania to Virginia. The plan worked so well that Mr. Williams, who outraged Orioles fans with his early threats to move the team to Washington, changed his mind.

Although he publicly never demanded a new ballpark, he refused to sign more than a one-year lease at Memorial Stadium. Some called it unfriendly persuasion, others blackmail. But Mr. Williams eventually got his luxury stadium, courtesy of the state of Maryland.

In his oversized skybox right behind home plate, Mr. Jacobs seemed to revel in entertaining influential guests. He packed the team's board of directors with Washington power brokers and played host to a roster of international luminaries, including President George Bush, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Queen Elizabeth II.

One guest, Democratic Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, once said of the Orioles owner, "He has a real enthusiasm about the team. He's the kind of person, who in a large group, is quietly happy that all his friends are there."

Mr. Jacobs on occasion used his influence at the ballpark in other ways. He had several battles with Mr. Hoffberger, who angered him by leading a competing group trying to buy the team from the Williams family. Mr. Jacobs considered revoking Mr. Hoffberger's season tickets at Memorial Stadium when the former owner was late paying his Orioles bill.

"We are not talking about large sums of money, and there is no reason people can't pay in a timely way," Mr. Jacobs explained when asked about the incident three years ago.

While most of Mr. Jacobs' guests were out-of-towners, he did make some friends here. He invited contractor Willard Hackerman and Leslie Disharoon, former chairman and president Monumental Insurance Corp., to join the Orioles board. His closest contact in Baltimore was H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman of Mercantile Bankshares and the banker who helped to finance Mr. Jacobs' purchase of the Orioles.

Mr. Jacobs followed Mr. Baldwin onto the boards of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Jacobs once contributed $50,000 to the BSO. He also made a $3 million pledge to the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute, Hopkins' world-renowned eye center, but it hasn't been fulfilled, apparently because of the owner's financial troubles.

Mr. Baldwin's friendship with Mr. Jacobs dissolved in a public feud last summer, when Mercantile sued the owner for failing to repay a $21.6 million debt. Five months later, the bank foreclosed on Mr. Jacobs' $2.25 million mansion in Baltimore County.

At the ballpark, Mr. Jacobs' box was one of a few equipped with privacy walls to shield the owner and his guests from curious fans. This year, as revelations about his financial problems leaked out, Mr. Jacobs moved to even more private quarters, watching Orioles games from a secluded box on the upper press level at Camden Yards known to team employees as "The Bunker."

Many of Mr. Jacobs' businesses were privately owned, and he ran them with eye toward secrecy. The Orioles were no exception. Under Mr. Jacobs, the team stopped disclosing the names of the Orioles board of directors.

Glimpses into the Orioles finances, including the team's revenues and expenses, also were rare during the Jacobs era. The team persuaded city officials to end their long-standing practice of disclosing this information during rent negotiations at city-owned Memorial Stadium.

When he bought the Orioles, Mr. Jacobs seemed receptive to questions about the team.

"This is a community project. The public and the media have a right to know a great deal about us," he said in a 1988 interview.

But Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and author of a 1992 book exploring the economics of baseball, found Mr. Jacobs less than forthcoming. During an interview for the book, the author said, Mr. Jacobs responded to every question about his team's finances by saying: "I don't answer those kinds of questions."

When Mr. Zimbalist asked what kinds of questions Mr. Jacobs would answer, the author said Mr. Jacobs replied, "I don't answer questions about the kinds of questions I answer."

Mr. Jacobs followed his team closely. He attended 40 to 50 games a year, and, when he wasn't at the ballpark, he got updated scores of Oriole contests.

When he received an honorary degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County three years ago, Mr. Jacobs had notes about a game in progress passed to him on stage. His driver listened to the games on the radio and kept a makeshift score card for Mr. Jacobs, tracking details for the owner when he had to leave his car.

At Camden Yards, the owner showed that he remembered the feeling of being a kid at a ballgame. When he noticed a young boy corral -- then lose -- a foul ball nicked into the stands last year, the owner phoned the Orioles clubhouse with instructions that another ball be delivered to the child.

The team performed well for most of Mr. Jacobs' years as owner. There were no division titles, but the Orioles finished second in 1989 and third in 1992.

And in 1989, the owner's first year, the Orioles engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in baseball history, improving their record by 33 victories over the season before, and coming within an eyelash of taking the American League East title.

For the most part, Mr. Jacobs appeared to leave baseball decisions to the baseball experts, notably Mr. Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond.

"He did a very smart thing in giving Rollie Hemond his full support. Eli didn't interfere; he didn't second-guess," says Mr. Vincent, the former baseball commissioner.

When it came to the team business, though, Mr. Jacobs seemingly could be a micro-manager, riding herd on team executives to hold down expenses while the team's revenues were shooting up.

He wasn't able to halt the runaway inflation in player salaries felt by all 28 major league teams. But the Orioles consistently ranked among the bottom third of teams in overall payroll during the Jacobs era. In large part, that was because the owner continued a plan, begun during the Williams years, of rebuilding the Orioles with young players signed by the team and schooled in their minor-league system.

The Orioles spent top dollar to sign star draft picks, including Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jeffrey Hammonds, who now form the nucleus of a young team that could remain competitive into the 21st century.

The Orioles have been slower to sign free-agent players who command bigger salaries. That approach differs from some of the team's chief rivals, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, who have spent freely to sign big-name stars.

Mr. Jacobs did approve one mega-deal -- Cal Ripken's five-year, $30.5 million contract. His involvement in other moves was less certain. In January 1991, the team pulled off two major player deals in 72 hours, obtaining Glenn Davis, a National League slugger, in a trade with Houston, and then sending their most dependable home run hitter, catcher Mickey Tettleton, to Detroit.

Orioles fans buzzed for weeks about the deals, wondering whether the owner only consented to taking on Mr. Davis' roughly $2.5 million salary after being assured that Mr. Tettleton, and his $1.6 million paycheck, was headed out of town.

Stan "The Fan" Charles, a local radio talk-show host who chats nightly with callers on his late-night program, says the team's spending decisions irritated some fans. "The Orioles have been a team that paid the going rate for the talent they had, but wouldn't go beyond that, despite the incredible profits," Mr. Charles says. "When you haven't won a world championship since 1983, the fans can get a little frustrated with that."

Mr. Jacobs took his role as stadium tenant seriously. He embarked on a whirlwind tour of major-league ballparks, stopping at Royals Stadium in Kansas City to scope out, among other things, the slope of the upper deck. Mr. Jacobs concluded the Orioles new ballpark should have a gentler pitch, and it does.

When the ballpark opened to smash reviews, Mr. Jacobs clearly savored the moment. He threw lavish parties for friends and baseball dignitaries on the first Opening Day, and again when the nation's attention focused on Camden Yards as the Orioles were host to last month's All-Star Game.

His pride in the park was such that Mr. Jacobs frequently presented himself as one of the ballpark's chief designers.

He described his role to The Sun last year as that of the ballpark's "architectural conscience."

That characterization may be overstated, says Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a key figure in the stadium project from its early stages.

"Many of the critical design decisions had been made when Mr. Jacobs became the owner. I believe Mr. Jacobs is sincere and that he believes he played a significant -- if not the key role -- in the design of the ballpark. Since I was part of the process from the beginning, I don't agree with that assessment," says Mr. Belgrad, who added that he was concerned that the owner's comments about his role might cause the contributions of others to be overlooked.

Mr. Jacobs soon will be moving out of his beloved ballpark, and by all indications the leaving won't be easy. The stadium clearly is more than just a building to Mr. Jacobs, and the Orioles more than just another valuable asset.

New York art dealer Jeffrey H. Loria says the owner's ambivalence was noticeable when he talked to Mr. Jacobs about buying the team two years ago: "It became clear that he was not really prepared to sell, for whatever personal reasons. It was a tough thing for him to part with. It becomes a part of you."

The new owners of the Orioles are expected to be named tomorrow in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. A judge, not Mr. Jacobs, will decide who gets the team because the New York investor is in personal bankruptcy.

The sale should be completed by mid-September, only three weeks before the climax of what promises to be a cliff-hanging pennant race featuring the Orioles and a handful of division rivals. Mr. Jacobs apparently won't be in the owner's box to see the exciting finish, but his memory will live on.

Above the right-field wall at the ballpark he so enjoyed is a delightful spot for viewing the game.

Its name: "Eli Jacobs Plaza."

The Orioles under Eli Jacobs

DEC. 6, 1988: Announcement that Eli S. Jacobs is buying team from widow of former owner, Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.

JUNE 26, 1989: Settlement of the sale is completed. Two days later, construction begins for new downtown stadium at Camden Yards.

JULY 9, 1989: Orioles become one of only six teams to be in first place at the All-Star break after a last-place finish the previous year.

OCT. 1, 1989: Attendance at Memorial Stadium jumps nearly 1 million (to 2.5 million) over previous year during season in which Orioles fight for a division title.

JUNE 12, 1990: Cal Ripken plays in his 1,308th consecutive game and moves into second place on the all-time list behind New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig

JAN. 10, 1991: Orioles trade for Glenn Davis, assuming the National League slugger's estimated $2.5 million salary.

JAN. 12, 1991: Orioles trade catcher Mickey Tettleton, whose 1991 salary is $1.6 million, to Detroit.

MAY 15, 1991: Queen Elizabeth II of England and her husband, Prince Phillip join President and Mrs. Bush in owner's box.

MAY 23, 1991: Johnny Oates replaces Frank Robinson as manager.

JUNE 6, 1991: Mr. Jacobs tells The Washington Post he would consider selling the team.

JULY 1991: Cal Ripken is chosen Most Valuable Player at All-Star game in Toronto.

OCT. 3, 1991: After months of disagreement: Mr. Jacobs likes Oriole Park, Gov. William Donald Schaefer prefers Camden Yards: the two men compromise and give the ballpark both names.

OCT. 6, 1991: Farewell ceremonies at Memorial Stadium draw sellout crowd to watch reunion of former players and removal of home plate to new ballpark.

April 6, 1992: Oriole Park at Camden Yards gets stunning national reviews on Opening Day, as Orioles defeat Cleveland.

July 20, 1992: Mr. Jacobs concedes financial problems to some lenders, saying his investments aren't generating enough money meet obligations and that he needs time to restructure his debt.

AUG. 24, 1992: Before a sellout crowd at Camden Yards, the Orioles announce they have signed Cal Ripken to the richest contract in franchise history: five years for $30.5 million.

SEPT. 2, 1992: Orioles agree to play in the new ballpark for 30 years, doubling the team's 15-year lease agreement signed in May 1988.

DEC. 21, 1992: An investors' group, led by Cincinnati businessman William O. DeWitt Jr., emerges as potential buyers of the Orioles. The DeWitt group includes two other Ohio investors and Orioles president Larry Lucchino.

MARCH 10, 1993: Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos announces he'll lead a group of Baltimore investors bidding for the Orioles.

MARCH 29, 1993: Efforts to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with creditors fail, and seven banks file in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York to have Mr. Jacobs placed into involuntary bankruptcy.

JUNE 10, 1992: The DeWitt investors agree to pay $141.3 million for the Orioles: a record for a baseball team: in a proposed deal filed in bankruptcy court. During a bidding war at a New York court house, the price leaps to $146.1 million.

JULY 13, 1993: Baltimore hosts All-Star game, the city's first since 1958.

AUG. 2, 1993: The team's new owners are expected to be picked by a bankruptcy judge.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad